WALTON COUNTY —Documents were filed in Walton County Superior Court Friday stemming from an August 2005 traffic stop that names the county, Sheriff Joe Chapman and deputies Jerry Greg Hall and Thomas R. Wilcox in a civil lawsuit.
On Aug. 21, 2005, Wilcox and Hall were parked alongside each other along Hwy. 81. According to reports, eight motorcycles in a group passed the two officers allegedly “revving their engines” and some were “apparently speeding.”
Hall activated his blue lights and, according to WCSO officials, half of the motorcycles pulled over while the rest continued westbound on Hwy. 81.
Hall went after the ones that did not pull over, while Wilcox, who was some distance behind the pursuit, arrived on the scene where the motorcycles had stopped.
Police video of the incident shows Wilcox got on his public address system in his cruiser and told the motorcyclists who stopped to pull up, indicating that officers wanted to “address them all together.”
Further up the road, Hall had two more pulled over while, according to WCSO officials, two others turned around. Hall radioed that two motorcycles had turned around and were heading back toward Wilcox.
At the time of publication, 9-1-1 tapes were not available to confirm or deny this account.
The video of the incident showed Wilcox pulling into the lane of oncoming traffic at a slow speed, with his police lights flashing but no siren. Shortly after, one motorcyclist — the plaintiff James Matthew Lewis — stopped and moments later was rear-ended by the other motorcyclist.
Lewis limped over to the side of the road and lay down with apparent injuries from the wreck.
The lawsuit contends that the two deputies “unlawfully, intentionally, forcefully and negligently effectuated what amounted to a custodial arrest … absent of probable cause.” The suit goes on to say the deputies falsely imprisoned Lewis, and that Wilcox committed aggravated assault by driving his patrol car into the path of the oncoming motorcycle with “the willful intent to ram [Lewis’] motorcycle.” The lawsuit also claims that this act was committed with the specific intent to cause serious injury or murder Lewis.
“The video is pretty detailed,” said Michael Puglise, attorney for Lewis. “I think what it shows basically is Lt. Wilcox ignored all standards of policing and intentionally tried to run my client off the road for no reason at all. [Wilcox] violated Walton County code by using his car as a weapon.
“The key thing here is that you have a citizen who violated no law but suffered as a result of the negligence and poor training of [Wilcox].”
Among other charges in the case are that Wilcox committed reckless conduct by consciously disregarding a substantial and justifiable risk to Lewis, committed reckless driving, was driving on the wrong side of the road, failed to maintain lane and failed to activate his emergency equipment.
As such, the county and sheriff are named in the suit for their “deliberate indifference” as well as inadequacy of police training, among other charges.
In addition, the defense has a letter from Walton County Sheriff’s Office Capt. M. D. Lowry provided a statement in a letter dated Dec. 8, 2005, that Lewis’ actions “did not rise to the level of a pursuit.”
Two misdemeanor charges were filed by the Georgia State Patrol in the incident but did not include fleeing or speeding.
Lewis is seeking full compensation as well as punitive damages in the case.
The police video also contains on it comments from the driver of the motorcycle that hit Lewis, saying that he felt Lewis was “running” from officers and also that Wilcox tried to hit them.
Chapman contends that although the officer did proceed into the lane of oncoming traffic, pointing out that Wilcox did so at a crawl and did have his lights on, it did provide a lane for Lewis to continue should he have felt the need to do so.
“The deputies were following departmental policy and the outcome will be decided on by a judge and a jury,” Chapman said.